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Upper House

July 26, 2015

Today we have two stories about the upper houses of parliament.  The Canadian parliamentary system is based on the British system.  Our Senate corresponds to the British house of lords.  Both countries also have an elected house of commons.  Bills must be passed by both houses before they become law.

I’m sure you all heard the announcement: Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, said that he would not be appointing any more senators to the senate.  Harper, of course, is also leader of the Conservative party.  For the Conservatives, the trouble with the senate used to be that it was full of Liberals.  Harper fixed that by appointing more senators than any other prime minister.  Now the senate is full of Conservatives.  Legislation usually originates in the house of commons.  Once it’s passed there, it moves on to the senate for their approval.  With a majority in both houses, and tight control of voting, government bills have a quick and easy passage through both houses and into law.  Even if the Conservatives lose the next election, the senate, now full of Conservatives, will still have to approve all bills.  No doubt, government bills will be witten so that they are likely to be passed by the senate.

A book I read recently, published about 150 years ago, used as a background the agitation for reform of the parliament in Britain.  Specifically, it dealt with the campaign to extend the vote to the dissenters, who were non-Anglical protestants.  This campaign stirred up little controversy, and easily passed in both houses of parliament.

At the time in which the book was set, only male landowners who were members of the Church of England could vote or stand for election to the house of commons.  These rules excluded all women, all renters, and members of other churches.  Today, I find such restrictions difficult to believe, but I have no doubt that the world was quite different 150 years ago.

The next reform, to extend the vote to Roman Catholics, was more controversial; there were riots in the streets.  Voters still had to be male landowners.  The reforms we know about, allowing all citizens to vote, came much later.  The bill to extend the vote to Roman Catholics was passed three times in the British house of commons, but defeated twice in the house of lords.  The third time, the king intervened and ordered the lords to pass the bill.  They complied that time, and it became law.

There is something to be said in favour an upper house.  In Canada, they often call it the chamber of sober second thought.  It’s the members who can make it or break it.  It’s important that they can act independantly, and not be constrained by party politics.  There’s no way to guarantee independance, of course.  How they are chosen is important.  Having them appointed by the prime minister must encourage partisan behavior, rather than independance.  I suppose that changing the way they are chosen is a good place to start the reform of our upper house.


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